"Ask the Expert" articles provide information and insights from MSU scientists, researchers and scholars about national and global issues, complex research and general-interest subjects based on their areas of academic expertise and study. They may feature historical information, background, research findings, or offer tips.
Jason Moser, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Michigan State University, discusses May being Mental Health Awareness Month and what you can do to help yourself and others who are struggling. Moser elaborates on healthy coping mechanisms one can use to overcome any mental health challenges they are facing.
What is the importance of Mental Health Awareness Month?
During Mental Health Awareness Month, it's important for us to keep in mind that anywhere between 25% and 30% of Americans will struggle with some sort of mental health problem at some point in their lives.
It's not always obvious when somebody in your life is struggling with mental health problems. We want to give people privacy, not be too invasive, not make assumptions about what's going on. On the other hand, we do want to offer support and help when we can. Some of the ways that we can tell are if somebody’s habits or behaviors have changed, especially around communication, or getting to work or school on time or completing assignments on time. If we see significant changes in what people typically do, then that's one way to tell that maybe you should check in.
Is mental health something that should be more widely talked about?
Over time, mental health problems have become less and less stigmatized. However, there are many people who still hold stigmatizing views of mental health concerns, either for themselves or in others. And that makes it harder for us all to talk about it and for people to ultimately get the help they need.
Every little piece can really help to destigmatize mental health problems –everything from having a mental health awareness month to children learning about mental health early in schools, to public figures coming out and speaking about their own struggles. All those pieces help. The more and more we make it a part of our lives that we all understand that people struggle with these things from time to time, ourselves, our loved ones, our bosses. Those pieces can come together and continue to raise awareness, destigmatize mental health concerns and ultimately give people the help they need.
Why is mental health still stigmatized?
Some of the reason, I think, that mental health concerns continue to be stigmatized to this day is because of common myths that are out there about the causes of mental health problems. For one, people think that mental health is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Second, some people think that mental health problems are caused by early, difficult relationships you had with your parents. Third, some people just think it's all in your head. While biology, early relationships and the things that we feel and think inside are part of what causes mental health concerns, it's not a versus. It's not a nurture versus nature. It's a nurture and nature, a complex set of factors that lead to mental health concerns in any one person.
A final myth that I want to dispel about mental health concerns is that folks with severe mental health problems like schizophrenia are more dangerous than the average person. In fact, it's more likely that a person with a severe mental health problem would be harmed than them harming others. It's just not the case that folks with severe mental illness are any more dangerous than the average person. They're less likely to be dangerous.
How can you help yourself and others who are struggling?
The first thing to do is think about building a toolbox and filling this toolbox with strategies that work for you. I like to evaluate tools on two dimensions. One is how easy is it to do and two, how likely is it for you to stick to it and develop it as a habit.
Of all the strategies that are out there to help us manage our mental health concerns and give advice to others, I want to highlight a few that I think are strong and backed by good research. There's mindfulness, there's expressive writing or journaling, there is walking in green spaces, there's taking a different perspective on things.
Exercise can also be helpful, as well as really challenging yourself to do something new or stressful that maybe you haven't done before or maybe you haven't done in a long time. And you might surprise yourself with the things that you can do and what you can learn from these new and challenging experiences.
The old saying, “It’s easier to give other people advice than to advise yourself and change your habits,” also holds true for a mental health concern. One way we can try to overcome this for ourselves is to talk to ourselves as if we're giving advice to a friend. What would you tell that friend? What would you tell that loved one about managing their mental health concerns? Would you tell them, maybe it's time to see somebody? Or would you tell them, you know what, it’s an opportunity for you to challenge yourself to something new. So, think about yourself in that way and try to give yourself advice as if you're giving it to a friend.